Totally Epic

Published with Permission

Written by Amy Barr

The first powered airplane only flew 12 seconds on its maiden voyage, and the first car could only move 2 miles an hour. The first Greek epic, however, was invented even before the finishing touches were put on the Greek alphabet in which it would eventually be recorded. Homer’s Iliad, and his smash sequel the Odyssey, have been moving the world ever since.

You probably have a copy of one of these epics on your bookshelf. You may even have tried to work them into your curriculum with varying levels of success or frustration. With a little background in place, most quickly learn that this three thousand-year-old literature still offers food for thought and potent words for modern ears.

Troy, known as Ilion/Ilium to the Greeks and Romans, is a real place you can visit in northwest Turkey. I worked with the excavation team at this well-fortified Bronze Age city and witnessed how most tourists climb the giant Trojan Horse replica for a fast photo before hastily leaving. The site of Troy is no Coliseum or Parthenon, because its claim to fame is its destruction. Archaeological evidence suggests that something calamitous happened there around 1180 B.C. when the city was nearly leveled.

Fast forward around four hundred years to find Homer, a blind Greek-speaking poet living in Ionia (Turkey), earning his keep by reciting a larger-than-life poem about heroes and fair Helen at ill-fated Troy. After the city falls, the Greeks make their way back home. Odysseus has so much misfortune that the poet composes a second epic to cover his ten-year trip back to Ithaca. While Homer included some very reliable details, he also filled in the gaps with tidbits from his own time and a big dash of imagination. He was, after all, making a living in the storytelling trade.

By the 1800s most scholars dismissed Homer,Troy, and the whole gang as pure poppycock, asserting that all of it had been invented by some ancient committee. Puffing their scholarly pipes, they wrote off a lot of ancient literature as a figment of antique imagination. Luckily Heinrich Schliemann, a German publicity-loving entrepreneur, got in touch with Frank Calvert, who firmly believed he was living at the actual site ofTroy. These two began the tradition of using archaeology to vindicate ancient literature while pipe-puffing scholars ate crow.

The Romans believed the Trojan War was their starting point. According to tradition, Rome was founded exactly 438 years after the fall of Troy (Velleius Paterculus 8.5). One of her founding fathers, Aeneas, would lead a gang of Trojan refugees from the burning city and settle them near what would eventually become a point of argument for Rome’s namesake, Romulus and brother Remus. Be sure to add Virgil’s Aeneid to your reading list if you want the whole epic picture.

The heroes of Homer’s epics lived by a code that would guide behavior from Homer to Alexander the Great.  Uninformed readers might conclude the Trojan War was about stolen Helen or lost love, but nothing could be further from the truth. It was the heroic code that would drive hundreds of Greek ships against Troy, compel Achilles to sit angrily in his tent, force best friend Patroclus to take Achilles’ place on the battlefield and push an army to blockade a city for a full decade.

C. M. Bowra summarized the heroic code this way: “The great man is he who, being endowed with superior qualities of body and mind, uses them to the utmost and wins the applause of his fellows because he spares no effort and shirks no risk in his desire to make the most of his gifts and to surpass other men in his exercise of them.1

The Romans would add their own flair to the heroic code. Virgil’s Aeneas, for example, embodied Roman pietas, a virtue which admonished each of us to put God, community, and family first.

While monsters and swashbuckling adventures keep the reader happy, Homer’s Odyssey is teaching the big life lesson that we are each defined by our generosity to strangers. From prince to farmhand the rule is the same: if you treat strangers with kindness, you’ll be remembered well. Hero Odysseus also teaches us to handle trouble with long-suffering patience so that we’ll eventually make it home safely.

Ancient epics are an important addition to your reading list. They are a gold mine for further thought and discussion if we don’t insist our kids start on them too young. I recommend waiting until your reader is in the critical thinking stage (13+) because of the weighty issues presented in these stories. Parents will enjoy reading the epics with your junior or senior high student. My favorite translations are by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo.

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